There are things we do not discuss openly in every family I’m part of. Things that have happened, things that have been done, things that are going on now. There are whispers, meant to be confidential, then more whispers, until the whispers become sighs we all perceive but never mention out loud.
We hide things, because we fear the repercussions of revealing our secrets. Someone might be hurt. Someone might be exposed. Relationships might break down. We drift past each other in silence, too afraid to open our mouths, not wanting to cause pain. We cannot say what we actually feel, what we really mean, so we say less and less of any consequence to each other. We talk about how the job is going, what we watched on TV, how hot it’s been this year. We avoid words like angry, hurt, lonely, lost, afraid. We learn which questions never to ask.
The mention of a specific person can cause pain. The one in jail. The one who left. The one who died. The one who is sick now. A person becomes a secret. The utterance of a certain name carries shame.
The secret child who was given away. That’s me. I was that secret, and I am a secret now.
When a person is a secret, she becomes unreal, a thing, inanimate and unfeeling. She is only legend. She can be dismissed. It can be as if she never existed at all if that is what the secret-keeper chooses. She can be silenced, disappeared. The existence of this secret person in the world is a problem. Every day the secret keeper exerts effort to keep her hidden, to remember to never to say her name, to never to refer to her in any way.
When the secret is a whole person, the person herself cannot be whole, unless she insists on becoming whole, on not playing along, on not ducking out of sight at anyone’s command. She must endeavor always to exist. Think of it! How much energy must it take to simply exist in a world where someone would rather you disappear into thin air? Imagine how it would be if you were forced to hide yourself away in order to improve the life of someone else. Imagine how valueless you are to that someone.
And if the person who locks you away is your own mother, the woman who carried you in her belly, the person to whom you should be most valuable, then you are destroyed from the inside out. You are absolutely worthless. You are not even dust on the floor. You are smaller than a particle of dust, smaller than an atom, the smallest thing in the universe. You are nothing at all. Even as you stroll along a public street in full view, a part of you is walking around dead, a part of you would rather just lie down beneath the dirt, because being disappeared by your own mother feels like you’re sure death must, causes you almost not to be able to feel at all.
Now imagine, that same person who wishes you away also demands things from you. Wants you to respond when called to. Wants you to deliver news of your life. Wants you to declare your love. Love! It’s preposterous when you really think about it, but too often you resist thinking about it very deeply, because when you do, you are killed all over again. A person can wish you away, keep you locked up as a secret, while demanding that you care about them, your captor, the one who has repeatedly bashed the pulp out of your heart. And you do care, of course you care, this is your mother, the being you were physically connected to for nine months while you were a helpless, developing creature, the person you wanted to be with most when you could communicate with the world only by crying. This is a person whose very essence is familiar to you at a cellular level. It is impossible not to care about her, even as she obliterates you over and over again. You do care, but sometimes, often, when she demands you prove that you care, you want to scream fuck you!
But you don’t. You can’t, because you are nothing, you don’t exist, you are the secret. So, you withdraw. She wants you to be invisible, so you will become invisible. You will keep to yourself. You will stop talking to anyone. You will stay inside your house, in your room, behind a locked door. You are silent. Silent. You do not respond. The only safe place is within yourself. The small part of you that persists can only continue to live if it remains protected.
I have withdrawn to shield myself from pain, just as the secret-keepers wish to side-step pain by escaping from what they perceive as a threatening reality. I have withdrawn rather than actively participate in the secret-keeping, but withdrawing also results in loss and, therefore, another pain. Pain on top of pain. We can never truly know each other with such an impeded connection. These secrets we keep are barriers between us that only trap the pain.
I have withdrawn rather than taking the risk of speaking what is never said, but what if I tore it all down? What if I spoke my own truth in an unquiet voice? What if I refused not to exist?
What if I disempowered the shame by speaking my own name? Can you imagine being afraid to say your own name out loud to other people? I did not appear from nowhere. I was born from a woman’s womb, conceived in a natural way. I am fully human and I exist. I have ancestors, and my ancestors are as much mine as they are my mother’s and father’s, my siblings’, my grandparents’. Yes, I have grandparents, and great-grandparents, and great-great-grandparents. Those living relatives of mine who don’t want to share their ancestors with me are not anointed gatekeepers of our mutual genealogy. I am alive on this earth. I need no one’s permission to exist.
As my son has said to me in his own defense on several occasions, I did not ask to be brought into this world. I had no part in my own creation, but there can be no denying that I am, indeed, here. I will not allow my existence to be erased. I am descendant from McMeechans and Podvoracs. These names are mine. I was called Kimberly Ann Podvorac when I was born. She is me and I am her. I exist.
My children exist, and they share my family names, my ancestors. I will never ask them to be silent, to keep any secret for me, nor will I ask them to keep the secrets of our ancestors. My children are truth-tellers, as I’ve raised them to be. There is no off-limits conversation between us.
My life belongs to me, but for too long I have allowed those who wish me to remain a secret to erase me. No more. No more.
I’m participating in Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge. This is #2 of 52.
10 thoughts on “Family Secrets”
Wow, this is such a powerful essay. Thank you for sharing. I found out I had a secret at the age of thirteen. I found out I had a half brother in the world that was never spoken of. It changed me, and my entire world view. The secret that was my brother (who tragically died nine months later) has more of an impact on my life today than you can imagine. Thank you again for sharing this. I wonder if this is how he felt growing up? I wish he was here so I could ask him.–Annie
I’m very sorry for the loss of your brother, both before and after you found out about him. If you ever write about him, please let me know. I’d be very interested in your perspective.
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Your words are both beautiful and tragic and I am so very sorry, and I know there is nothing I can say to make a difference. Hugs.
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You make a difference in my life by reading and responding to my words. Thank you!
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Breathtakingly beautiful, tragic, and…well, true.
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Thank you for sharing your story. I applaud your courage. I love how at the end you step out of the shadows and into the light. I hope that you found peace as you journeyed out of the shadows. Continue to scream your name from the rooftops!
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Beautiful and painful. I’m so sorry for your pain. I proudly added my birthson and his wife, children, and grandchild to my family tree. Once I let my secret out, I spoke proudly of him and my family welcomed him . I know this isn’t your experience. I just wanted to say you do exist and you have every right to your name and your ancestors.
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Thank you for reading and for your comment. It helps to hear from mothers who have been able to overcome the shame that was put upon them. I wish all the best to you and your son.
I am in tears
I’ve never read such a beautiful and heartbreaking perspective from a child given up by her birth mother. I came to this essay by reading your Brevity piece on publishing memoir. If this is a part of your memoir, it would help and educate many people, on both the subjects of being given up and finding your voice. Stunning writing.